Should you notice I’m a woman? Should I care?

So, following on from my observations of being an outsider at FOSDEM because I’m not an open source developer, I do have another story to tell where my female-ness is actually relevant.

I’m going to give specifics, but it’s not to name and shame or anything like that, it’s just that anonymising it will probably erase some of the subtleties.  But I’m not telling this to make anyone feel bad, because this is not an oh-poor-me story, this is just the way it goes sometimes and I want to share what it feels like.

At JFokus (a conference I really enjoyed, where I got a chance to spend time with some awesome people) I was on a panel (well, game-show really) about static vs dynamic languages.  Not unusually, I was the only woman on the panel.  Also not unusually, one of the reasons I agreed to take part is to do my bit in demonstrating that women have technical knowledge too (in my opinion, it’s important where possible to avoid a stage full of white men of a particular age, and I’m in a position to be able to do something about that).  And, as per usual, I was a bit nervous about this in case the only woman on the panel also turned out to look stupid, but hey, looking stupid is one of the risks of this job.

During the session, my gender was mentioned twice - once with “ladies first”, and once to specifically point out that our static-languages team was somehow superior because we had both genders represented (well of course we’re better, I’m on the team). Note that neither of these was derogatory at all - both were, in fact, positive towards me, and I wasn’t troubled or offended by them. I’m used to people noticing and commenting on my gender.  I got used to it in the same way you get used to your commute to work, or dealing with merge conflicts - it’s something you do, it’s not always comfortable, but it’s no one’s fault and they’re not out to get you.

I didn’t really process how the gender-mentions made me feel until after, at which point I was drained from giving yet another new talk that day, as well as the surprisingly physical panel discussion. But afterwards, when I was back in my hotel room packing for yet another plane journey, I was thinking “is it normal?".  Was it inevitable that someone was going to notice/point out that I’m female?

Was it down to my choice of clothing?  I debated long and hard with myself about wearing what was definitely a ridiculously short skirt for a session like that, but in the end I decided I didn’t want to wear jeans like everyone else, and wearing tiny skirts is something I find fun. But I did think I’d be behind a table and it wouldn’t be too obvious.  Should I worry that much about what I wear?  I used to plan what to wear for work, I used to love dressing up for going out with friends, so over-thinking my clothes for a conference is part of who I am.

And one of the reasons to wear the skirt is because I’ve found myself wearing jeans and t-shirts more than ever.  I think the combination of travelling a lot (I hate packing, so packing a couple of pairs of jeans and a bunch of t-shirts makes life easy) and being part of a tech company where that’s basically our uniform has lead to extreme laziness in my clothing choices, and I want to change that.  Who wants to look like everyone else?  Not me.

So back in that hotel room, at the end of a long day, knowing I have to get up at 5am the next morning to get on a plane to New York, I felt drained.  I felt… vulnerable? But if I dig down to find out what’s really making me feel not-cool, it’s not because a couple of people noticed I was a girl.  It’s because I was tired, because I was on display, because I had been worried about my choice of clothes, because drawing attention to yourself is not terribly British, because I didn’t know if my new talk was any good.

It’s easy to blame impostor syndrome, or something similar. And maybe this is what impostor syndrome feels like. But I’m pretty sure every conference speaker, whatever their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, has felt this way.  I don’t think it’s because I have two X chromosomes and I’m in a male-dominated environment.

I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from this experience.  I did want to share it so that other people know what it feels like.

Possible conclusions:

  • When you’re tired, it’s easy to blame the first thing that springs to mind for your lack of shiny-happy feelings
  • When you’ve got a lot on your plate, seemingly-innocuous (even those driven by positive intentions) comments or actions can increase your stress levels
  • Don’t think too much.  It can drive you mad.

Why is it News when a woman becomes CEO?

I’m pleased to see that GM has hired the “best person for the job” as their new CEO - that does seem like a good idea.  I’m happy her gender did not get in the way.  What makes me uncomfortable is the international news coverage of the decision of this large manufacturer to hire a woman as their CEO - if she were a man (and/or black/gay/disabled) would the headline read “The camera loves her. So do employees."?

But at the root of that is probably the thing I’m most unhappy about.  What I’m not happy about is that it is 2014, halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, and she’s the first woman CEO of a car manufacturer.

I worked at Ford Motor Company as an undergraduate and, later, a graduate.  I basically did my apprenticeship there. I know that over fifteen years ago they were hiring graduates from different disciplines (men and women), they had a women-in-leadership programme (or probably several, as I was only involved in the one for the IT organisation), they had a great maternity package (a great package for adoption too, but only the standard paternity package, ho-hum), on-site creches at the bigger locations, and were actively looking for ways to improve their diversity across the board.  They had issues on the plant floor which they were actively working to address, but management did not have a culture of discrimination, to my knowledge.  I remember the number of “real” techies in my IT graduate intake year, not the number of women, probably because the women were better represented than the coders.

So why has it taken so long for these old, old companies (Ford turned 100 while I was there) to put a woman into a position of leadership?  Maybe all these actions are what has, finally, lead to this mold-breaking appointment.  Or maybe decades of doing what is supposed to be the right thing is not having any impact at all - Mary Barra’s father worked at GM for 39 years, she herself started there as an intern and engineer, and has worked in different areas of the company as she’s risen through the ranks.  In this day and age, it’s probably more unusual to appoint a CEO who worked their way up to that position in that company than it is to appoint a woman - I’m not sure how many more there are out there when often it seems the best way to get a promotion now is to switch company.

I don’t know why it took GM so long to appoint a female CEO, I don’t know how they managed to be the first of the big automotives.  And although I really hate all this “Oh wow, a woman CEO” news coverage (and I dare not read the comments because I know I’ll get angry), I don’t know if it’s something we need to do, to hold up these positive female role models, or something we should stop doing because all it does is point out how unusual women in leadership are - how news-worthy it is that a big, old organisation has finally joined the 21st century.  But the fact that I felt the need to blog about it I think means we still have a lot of work to do in this area.

On The Evil Of Stereotypes

I attended (one way or another) two events last week that got me thinking

The first was Girl Developers will Save the World - a session that had me a little confused as to whether that referred to me, or actual girls, i.e. those that are not yet legally classed as adults.  The second was the Remarkable Women Twitter party the following day.
Firstly, a caveat/disclaimer (as usual) - both events were useful, thought-provoking and overall worthwhile.  But the alarming thing to me was the number of times I heard "boys are…" or "women think…" or "girls prefer…".  And I know we often make generalisations to stress a point, but I'm becoming extremely wary of statements that group people together along some arbitrary boundaries.  

  • "Google+ failed because it's design by men for men" - no, it's because it's not designed for anyone.  Its only purpose was to compete with Facebook.
  • "Women are better at communicating and social activities" - what, all of us?  I'm better at communicating than every man I've ever met?  Than someone like Obama or Steve Jobs or John Stewart? 
  • "Women do better with female role models" - where are the statistics?  And do men do better with male role models, or do they do better with female role models too because women are so much "better at communicating"?
I'm not saying these statements aren't ever true.  I'm not even saying they're not true "most" of the time (although I want to see proof).  But any kind of strategy based on gross generalisations had better take into account the fact that these are generalisations, that they are based on Statistics1(and sometimes not even those), and that they frequently correspond nicely to things we'd like to think or we are trained to think.
Humans are great at categorising.  It's a survival skill - "yummy", "warm", "safe", "funny coloured = hurty tummy", "things with sharp pointy teethies like to eat me".  Without this skill we wouldn't have made it as a species.  And marketing people, who have to use psychology to get us to part with our money, understand this.  They identify trends and target their shinies to these trends (YuppieBaby Boomer, etc).  By identifying these groups and aiming at them, they make them real.  And since humans are a clan-based society, who (again for evolutionary reasons) need to fit in with their gang, these groups become aspirational.  Essex people drive BMWs and wear white stilettos?  I don't and I live in Essex, oh no! I'd better get on that right away, otherwise people will see I'm An Imposter.
So when people go around saying "Women are great at communicating", we believe it.  Those of us who are a bit sucky at it or maybe don't care about it wonder if we're aliens.  Or we believe we're great at it because we should be, and we don't work at improving our skills.  Men are terrible at cleaning?  Great!  I don't have to clean the toilet!  Women's minds aren't programmed for engineering because they're more communicaty than logical?  Fine, I'll teach physics instead of using it.
If I hear one more person say women don't do well in IT because they prefer more soft-skill-based roles, I'm going to scream. In that case, why are there more women entering accountancy than men? In that case, how do men ever get to manage people, and why does pair programming work so well?
If I hear once more that men put women off these roles because of the macho male environment, I'm going to drag that person through a tour of every office I've worked in - I'm constantly disappointed that my male colleagues enjoy football even less than than the girls I went to school with.
So, using stereotypes to try and address things like gender disparity in IT is not going to work.  The men in our industry are not beer-swilling, football-watching, womanising alpha males.  So why, when we talk about the missing women in our industry, do we assume they will be pink-obsessed, fashion-conscious, gossipy socialites who only hang around with other women?  Do you even know any women like that?  This is not Desperate Housewives, this is Real Life.

Really good marketing people don't target people as they are - no-one wants to be considered poor - you're a bargain hunter or great at identifying value.  Similarly, if you want women to use your product or  work for your company, you don't target to weight-obsessed, soap-opera-watching, child-caring fashionistas.  Instead you target how a person wants to be seen.  You might say using your product or working for your company makes a person look smart, savvy and awesome.  And who doesn't want to be all of those things?

Saying people in IT are sexy and intelligent and earn loads of money and have oodles of job options and can find work globally might be a compelling story for people.  Some of those people might even be women.  Some of them might even be the other missing minorities

Thinking in stereotypes can be damaging to everyone.  Gender stereotypes in both directions are so sweeping they are unhelpful, you can't categorise fully half of the world's population as one thing or another.  I hear men doing men a disservice by saying things that aren't even true for themselves, and the same for women.  It's something we're trained to do, and something the media loves to do.  But it's wrong.  

So the next time you find yourself saying "men prefer..." or "women are...", stop and think if this is actually true for all of the men and women you know.  And if it's not, just don't say it.

1Lies, damned dies and…

Working Environment

How important to you is your working environment?

 - Type of desk
 - What’s on it
 - Position / type of mouse, keyboard, monitor(s)
 - Music / background sound (or lack of it)
 - Open plan vs team room vs cube vs personal office
 - etc…

These physical items could be extended to include your virtual environment:
 - Eclipse / IntelliJ Idea / Visual Studio (is it still called this?) / other dev enviornment - setup, preferences, window positions
 - OS
 - Desktop icons - do you care what / how many / positioning
 - Which software is always open when you’re working, and does it matter what order you open them in (so they’re in the correct place on your task bar) (additional: does not having enough RAM cripple you because you have to constantly shut and re-open software?)

How anal are you about setting these things up and getting them just right before you can start coding (or whatever it is you do)?

This post comes to you courtesy of my irritation with my chair.  I want to code cross-legged today and my chair does not adjust in the dimension required to provide me with enough space to do this.